WASHINGTON — As one of Congress' top experts on spending issues, Washington state Rep. Norm Dicks keeps an eye on the public purse, and he says that Burmese pythons just cost taxpayers way too much money.
As the snakes multiply and spread, Dicks says, the federal government must spend millions of dollars each year to try to control them. Moreover, he says, the giant, fast-growing snakes jeopardize public safety and threaten the government's huge investment in restoring Florida's Everglades.
Dicks, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, has had enough: He says it's time to make sure that no more of the snakes, which can exceed lengths of 20 feet, are allowed to enter the United States or move across state lines.
To that end, Dicks wants President Barack Obama's administration to act quickly to finalize a proposed rule that would stop all imports and interstate transport of Burmese pythons and eight other types of constrictors.
Zoos would not be affected. Under the proposed rule, which has won the backing of the Humane Society of the United States, exemptions could be granted for "scientific, medical, educational or zoological purposes."
While many of the snakes are popular as pets, Dicks said the pythons are "causing damage and devastation" and must be banned.
"They're killing a lot of other species, and they're dangerous," Dicks said in an interview.
Snake traders say that a ban would put them out of business. The proposed rule — which also is opposed by the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers — has bogged down as some Republicans, including Rep. Darrell Issa of California, have sympathized with the snake importers, citing the proposed rule as another example of job-killing policies promoted by the Obama administration.
The snakes, estimated in the tens of thousands in Florida, have long been a source of trouble, eating alligators, porcupines and other animals. In 2009, a pet python strangled a 2-year-old girl in the state. And in October, workers captured a 16-foot python that had gobbled up a 76-pound deer.
While some Florida lawmakers have worked for years to try to get the snakes banned, key congressional appropriators now are promoting the cause.
Teaming up with Republican Rep. Bill Young of Florida, another senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, Dicks wrote a letter to the president shortly before Congress' holiday break, saying the federal government "simply cannot afford additional spending in the billions to control invasive species."
They said the government already has spent billions on restoring the Everglades and complained that the snakes have now become the dominant predator and threaten the region's sensitive ecosystem.
Noting the "enormous reproductive potential" of the snakes, the congressmen said, "This problem will continue to cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually" if it's not addressed.
"We can also help prevent these large and powerful snakes from colonizing other southern regions of the nation where climate conditions would allow these reptiles to survive and thrive," Dicks and Young wrote in their letter to Obama.
One study by the federal government found that if global temperatures continue to rise, pythons would be established in roughly one-third of the country by 2100, including in Washington state, Oregon, California, Colorado, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.
David Barker, a herpetologist and founder of a business that specializes in the research and propagation of pythons and boas, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in September that genetic testing indicates that the pythons established themselves in Florida sometime before 1994. Most likely, he said, it happened after the accidental release of captive-bred babies from a reptile distributor's facility during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
In 2009, Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Kendrick Meek, both Florida Democrats, introduced a bill that would have banned the snakes and stopped their movement across state lines by having the government declare them as "injurious wildlife" under an administrative process known as the Lacey Act.
After the legislative effort failed, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar joined the effort in 2010, backing a proposed rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would ban imports and interstate transport of the python and eight other snakes: the boa constrictor, the northern African python, the southern African python, the reticulated python, the green anaconda, the yellow anaconda, the Beni or Bolivian anaconda, and Deschauensee's anaconda.
Salazar said that government officials face "an uphill battle" in trying to control the population of the snakes in ecosystems such as the Everglades, which lacks natural predators. With so many pythons on the loose, some have jokingly suggested changing the name to the "Neverglades."
Herpetologist Barker said the snakes have become big business in the United States. According to his statistics, the number of households owning a reptile grew from 2.8 million to 4.7 million from 1994 to 1998, an increase of 68 percent. That compares to a 35 percent increase during the same period in households owning any kind of pet, he said.
Barker called the plan "misguided regulation" and predicted that it would result in industry losses of up to $1.2 billion over 10 years. He said that the federal government is overstating the threat caused by the snakes and that the issue should be left to the states.
"In short, if this rule goes into effect, it will destroy my life's work and investments for no rational reason," Barker said.
Dicks said the main opposition is coming from snake importers and that it shouldn't be a reason to hold up the new rule any longer.
"I just think that's ridiculous," he said.
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